Mike Delany raring to go for the Highlanders
Mike Delany has been taking no chances with the Highlanders cursed No 10 jersey ahead of tonight's Super Rugby game against the Blues in Dunedin.
Delany assumes the first five-eighth role which has been a black spot for the franchise for the past two seasons after sorting out an insurance issue which threatened to keep him out of contention.
The 29-year-old left Japan last month, where he had been playing for the Panasonic Wild Knights, under the shadow of a shoulder injury.
His London-based insurance company had blanched at providing him with cover and Delany was not prepared to play without that security, meaning he was not available for the Highlanders' loss to the Stormers two weeks ago.
No-one would blame Delany for being extra cautious.
The former Bay of Plenty, Chiefs and Highlanders player will be wearing the jersey Colin Slade was in when he broke his jaw on two separate occasions last year.
In 2012 both Slade (broken leg) and Lima Sopoaga (broken shoulder blade) have succumbed to season-ending injuries.
While the bye week had given Delany more time to have a further scan and continue talks with the insurers, it hasn't given him a lot of time to put the Highlanders play book into practice on the training paddock because everyone else had gone home.
"The guts of it is that it's all been cleared up and now he can play with confidence that if he does get injured – and no-one goes out to get injured, he's going to be covered like all the other boys are," Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph said.
"He's had three of four days with us and then another four days. At the end of the day he's in a pivotal position but he is going to be behind the eight ball in regards to understanding everything we've got. He's a pretty good football player all the same."
Delany starts tonight ahead of Chris Noakes – who has not been immune to the No 10 curse either with ankle and groin injuries this season for the Highlanders.
He will direct a rejigged backline which sees Phil Burleigh, one of the Highlanders' best players during the early rounds of the competition, come in at centre with Tamati Ellison shifting back to fullback to cover for Ben Smith.
Smith, who had a recurrence of a concussion during the first half against the Stormers, could have played against the Blues but Joseph said he preferred to err on the side of caution.
"Ben could have played if it was a final this weekend. There's no need to rush guys in. I keep on saying to journalists that we have to be able to pick up injuries and play with the depth of our team for the rest of the season."
Joseph said the positional changes were not a reflection on Kurt Baker, who spent all of last season on the sideline with a back injury and has been rarely sighted in 2012.
"I guess the fact we've had some reasonable success with Burleigh in the midfield and the fact that Tamati has played fullback at this level, we opted for that experience. Kurt is in the 22 and no doubt he'll get an opportunity as he did against the Waratahs. He won the beep [fitness] test the other day so he's raring to go."
Tonight's game will be a big night for the Bekhuis family with Stags lock Josh running out for his 50th appearance in just his fourth season with the Highlanders, following in the footsteps this season of Southland team-mates Jamie Mackintosh and Jason Rutledge, while Jimmy Cowan brought up his 100th game against the Stormers.
Bekhuis, the son of former Southland lock Richard Bekhuis, has also played 62 games for the Stags.
HIGHLANDERS: Tamati Ellison, Kade Poki, Phil Burleigh, Shaun Treeby, Hosea Gear, Mike Delany, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu, James Haskell, Adam Thomson, Jarrad Hoeata, Josh Bekhuis, Chris King, Andrew Hore, Jamie Mackintosh (captain). Reserves: Jason Rutledge, Ma'afu Fia, Doug Tietjens, Culum Retallick, Jimmy Cowan, Chris Noakes, Kurt Baker.
BLUES: Hadleigh Parkes, George Moala, Rene Ranger, Ma'a Nonu, Benson Stanley, Gareth Anscombe, Alby Mathewson, Peter Saili, Luke Braid (captain), Chris Lowrey, Filo Paulo, Ali Williams, Charlie Faumuina, Tom McCartney, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: James Parsons, Tevita Mailau, Liaki Moli, Daniel Braid, Piri Weepu, Michael Hobbs, David Raikuna.
Referee: Bryce Lawrence
Assistant ref 1: Mike Fraser
Assistant ref 2: Kane McBride
TMO: Vinny Munro
TAB: Highlanders $1.57, Blues $2.30.
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